I found this on the Cross-Focused Leadership for Missouri site the other day — they are evidently gathering pieces on “What Others are Saying…” around the synod. This is one that they have posted currently on their website — from the likes of Uwe Siemon-Netto, Pr Gary Arp, Dr. Leo Mackay, and this one by Reinhild Niebuhr.
Out of Africa
By Reinhild Niebuhr
CEO Themba Trust
In April 2006 a visitor from the U.S. came to Themba. He had been referred to our little Lutheran non-profit organization by Bishop David Tswaedi, leader of the Lutheran Church of Southern Africa (LCSA) and long-time serving member of the Board of Trustees of the Themba Trust. I was in Pretoria at the time, and my husband, Nico den Oudsten, showed the visitor around. They had a look at the two high schools started by Thembaâ€”Sinethemba and Siyathemba, serving boys and girls respectively. Every year between 120-150 teenagers come to Themba from poverty-stricken, mainly rural homes, more often than not orphaned. They come in the faith that they will be receiving a scholarship to continue their high-school education in one of the two schools while living in the Themba private boarding homes. The rest of the students at Themba are blessed with families that can pay for them, and together these young studentsâ€”poor and middle-classâ€”learn to become young leaders in Christ through the daily devotions, weekly religious education classes based on Christian Lutheran conviction, and Sunday church services led by Pastor Nkosinathi Biyela from the LCSA.
The visitor did not know this, but in 2006 Themba was facing a highly uncertain future. Since the sudden retirement owing to illness of the founder, Pastor Stillfried Niebuhr, a missionary from the Lutheran Mission in Bleckmar, Germany, in 2002 this organization had suffered from extreme cash flow challenges owing to a dwindling donor support base in Germany. I had joined the Themba Trust as a Trustee at the end of 2003 and, while learning to understand the workings of this organization in 2004, realized with dismay that it was relying on its savings to survive. In 2005, I took personal responsibility for the finances after it had become clear that the organization was running into the red and that the then General Manager felt helpless in the face of this situation. I also had no idea where to start, except to figure out how much money Themba actually needed, and then to commit this huge challenge to God in faith and in prayer.
His answer came a few months later in April 2006, in the form of our visitor, Pastor Matt Harrison, head of The Lutheran Churchâ€”Missouri Synod’s World Relief and Human Care. I don’t know if Matt, as he encouraged us to call him, knew at the time that he had come as an emissary from the Almighty, but we have learned at Themba that God works through people to support His work, and He had chosen Matt to be one of those people.
When Matt heard the angelic voices of the girls choir at the Themba school, both his evangelizing and his entrepreneurial spirits jumped into action. Then and there he started thinking about a way in which these voices could become a blessing to many, many more people, while at the same time raising the much needed funds to keep God’s work at Themba going. Yes, Matt Harrison was going to make it possible for a young, gifted and successful Lutheran Jazz Singer, Erin Bode, to come to South Africa and make a CD together with the Themba Girls!
The “Erin Bode and the Themba Girls” project was a significant undertaking by WR-HC, but it has been more than worth it! It saved Themba through its most difficult financial year in recent memoryâ€”2009. In addition to the $190,000 in cash that Matt’s team raised for Themba to date through the visibility created by the “Erin Bode and the Themba Girls” project, two of the Themba girls have now successfully completed the first three years of their four-year undergraduate university courses at Concordia University Irvine, on a full tuition scholarship donated by Concordia Irvine and with a WR-HC-funded scholarship for boarding, travel, and related expenses.* But most importantly, through Matt’s enthusiasm, energy, dedication, and generosity, Themba has become an organization that has found a growing circle of new friends among the LCMS family. Matt has opened the door for Themba to draw on the support of these friends for many years to come.
Ever since I first met him at the launch of the “Erin Bode and the Themba Girls” CD in St. Louis, Matt has been an inspiration to me. His warmth, friendliness, and quirky sense of humor, despite his important role within the LCMS church structures, is a sign of his special brand of “gregarious humility.” Matt reaches out to people, no matter where they come from and what their background is. He is simply a wonderful example of a joyful, loving servant of Christ, a role-model for youth that are wishing for a less stiff church environment, a respected academic scholar who brings theoretical knowledge down to earth in his writings, and a servant leader who has understood that word without deedâ€”Gospel without Mercyâ€”is neither Lutheran, nor Christian.
God knew why he had handpicked Pastor Matt Harrison to set foot on the red soil of Themba. And through His grace, we now know too.
* Both girls will be coming to work at Themba after their graduation, strengthening the new, young management team we have been growing over the past four years.